Wonderful 101’s User Experience is a Nightmare

I started replaying Wonderful 101 Remastered recently (I’ve bounced off this game before), and the User Experience (UX) of this game is REALLY REALLY BAD. Here’s a quick introduction to User Experience for people who don’t know. User Experience is a field of design descending from User Interface design that incorporates a lot of different aspects that users run into in the process of trying to interact with a software product or service. In a game, User Experience covers not just the UI, but the presentation of game elements on the screen, the way that rewards are structured, the way new options are unlocked, the color coding of various elements (like enemies, attacks, etc), the presence and intrusiveness of cutscenes, the controller layout, online ranking systems, cosmetics, the tutorialization, and even the structure of the game’s mechanical design itself. Something like the way Gears of War gives new players in online multiplayer a subtle buff for the first 5 matches, so they’re more likely to win and therefore stick around, is UX. UX is ideally informed by research, both on the level of the whole discipline, and for individual games and playtesting to find pain points for new users. Playtesting with new users is inherently UX.

This article helps explain UX in the context of games better: https://medium.com/@player_research/what-is-games-user-experience-ux-and-how-does-it-help-ea35ceaa9f05

Platinum games AS A WHOLE, have extremely bad UX. Wonderful 101 manages to kick it up a notch from the normal badness of Platinum’s UX.

A common Platinum Game UX problem is requiring basic defensive abilities to be unlocked in the store (sometimes through progression). This is in practically every Hideki Kamiya Platinum action game, from Bayonetta (air dodge), to Wonderful 101 (unite guts and unite spring), to Metal Gear Rising (Offensive defense, a dodge. Technically not a Kamiya game). Wonderful 101 is notable here, because Unite Guts and Wonder Spring are your block and dodge, your ONLY defensive abilities. Blocking attacks with Unite Guts is the only easy way to make some enemies vulnerable and the easier of two ways to make them susceptible to juggles. If you do not unlock these abilities, your only way to defend yourself is to run away from attacks, some of which home-in! There is a big tutorial pop-up telling you to buy them when you first visit the shop, but you do not have them for the entire first mission, and the first fight versus bigger enemies in the game. Plus, you won’t see that pop-up unless you go into the store, which you’re not guaranteed to do immediately. Presumably the reason such basic moves are unlocks is so that tutorials don’t need to be front-loaded at the start of the game, and can be spaced out more over the first few missions, and requiring you to buy them makes it obvious what you have versus what you don’t, and you try out the new thing you got. However it would be easy to just have these unlocked from the start and have prompts pop up about them at appropriate points, instead of locking you out of mission critical moves.

The ranking systems in Platinum Games are extremely demotivating to a new player. They function on a triad of time / combo score / damage taken. A new player is guaranteed to score poorly on almost every mission, because they don’t understand the systems, they aren’t familiar with the encounters, they’re practically guaranteed to get hit once per fight, and they get penalized harshly for using continues or items, which these games hand out like candy. This annoys a lot of new players. The ranking systems do exist to give players an incentive to work towards playing the game better/more perfectly, but the combo score component depends on unlocking moves that you do not have from the beginning of the game, and will not unlock until multiple playthroughs through the game. In Wonderful 101, it is not really possible to get a platinum in many fights on the first playthrough because you need to unlock Wonder Rising first. With each weapon no less! My proposal for fixing this problem is to have a completely different grading system for the easy and normal difficulties that is biased towards only giving the highest ranks. Getting a platinum in any of the 3 scores should yield at least a gold rank on the fight, 2 should yield platinum, 3 pure platinum (and if the last is a gold, maybe give pure plat anyway, at least on easy and very easy), REGARDLESS of the other scores. Make it a similar deal with 1 gold yielding at least a silver, 2 gold = gold, 3 gold = platinum, and so on down the ranks. On easy to normal difficulties, make the penalty for using items, low or nil. Same for Continues. Save the real scoring system for the higher difficulties. Fans of action games don’t enjoy clearing out the lower difficulty modes for their score card, in large part because it is so annoying to get a high combo score on the easier difficulties.

Platinum games are loaded to the brim with cutscenes intermittently throughout missions. These cutscenes are frequently fairly lengthly, being minutes long, but don’t have a lot of real plot development. Some of them are unskippable, and skipping a cutscene means opening a menu, moving the cursor over, and selecting skip. It’s nice that you can pause cutscenes so you can walk away. It’s not nice that the pause has a delay before the menu is active, meaning it takes time to pause and unpause, as well as time to move the cursor over to the skip button. You need to do this a lot or sit through a lot of cutscenes and this can seriously interrupt the gameplay and the learning process. If these cutscenes played out without interrupting your ability to interact and progress, they would be significantly less intrusive. Nier Automata largely learned this lesson by having characters speak about non-critical story elements during battles and exploration.

Collectible consumable items pop up CONSTANTLY, with tutorial popups for what they do. These pop-ups always have a delay before you can dismiss them, to guarantee you’ve reread how they work after you already know. I KNOW HOW MUCH A BLUE RUPEE IS ALREADY! This is highly distracting and disturbing to flow. Collecting batteries factors into your final score, as well as how much energy you can use during each mission (???), adding more distraction during fights and exploration.

The screen is massively cluttered with characters, enemies, and random environmental objects, and zoomed in by default. The color scheme makes it difficult to discern enemies or your character from the background, especially in circumstances where the ring around your character disappears. The submenu can come up for rearranging your team leaders, or giving you a radar, which covers enemies underneath it, and it does not display the prompt to dismiss it anywhere onscreen and it does not go away automatically if you don’t use it. BY DEFAULT, THE PC REMASTER HAS KEYBOARD BUTTON PROMPTS ONLY, AND DOES NOT AUTOMATICALLY SWITCH WHEN A CONTROLLER IS DETECTED. YOU NEED TO DIG THROUGH THE MENUS TO FIND THE OPTION FOR THIS, AND IT IS NOT CLEARLY LABELED. Tiny enemies are not clearly color coded when they are attacking, or vulnerable (I have not divined the way their states are color coded yet) and are generally easy to miss when they’re attacking, or there is one left to kill before the mission ends. Enemy attack cues can be extremely subtle and not have a clear cadence like in other action games, allowing even the attacks of large enemies to get lost in the sea of information on-screen.

There is no explanation that you need to use unite guts to deflect blunt attacks, or that it is pierced by spiked attacks. My brother actually got up to the tanks and quit because he couldn’t damage them. I knew you needed Unite Guts already from watching footage of the game, so I didn’t have a problem with them. There is no prompt to zoom the camera in or out, or to dismiss the submenu. You need to unlock wonder stinger and wonder rising WITH EACH WEAPON! These are the only 2 command attacks on each weapon and they need to be reunlocked with each one, from finding secrets and fighting enemies! WHY.

Wonderful 101 overloads you with information, distracts you from what’s useful constantly, hides essential features and information, fails to explain essential information, and presents information in a way that is very difficult to interpret. It is entirely clear why so many people had such a hard time getting into this game. It is made seemingly on purpose to drive people away from it as fast as possible, with the tank enemies in particular being hard barriers, requiring you to use options that you don’t necessarily have and certainly that aren’t explained to you.

I’m eventually going to overcome the new player experience and see how good the game is overall, but in the meantime it massively frustrates me.

Doom Eternal Review ft. S.G.S.

Editor’s Note: The original draft and most of the content of this was written by our discord mod, S.G.S. I stepped in to help flesh out sections comparing the gameplay styles of Classic Doom versus Eternal, Resource Manangement, Enemy design, and wrote the Marauder section by myself.

Honestly, I’m nothing short of thoroughly impressed this time around. id Software took the interesting but flawed attempt at action FPS that was Doom 2016, and capitalized on the potential it had in a splendid way.


Doom 2016’s resource management was handled via glory kills for health and chainsaw use for ammo, combined with more “traditional” level design with health and ammo pickups strewn about. This felt like a clash of ideals to me. Classic Doom (and a lot of older shooters) had non-renewable resources that were limited exclusively to pickups around the map, which meant that routing through the map to acquire weapons/ammo/health/armor became an important skill to master. Classic Doom was about resource gathering and attrition, which created a chain of events across a map which had context with each other. Your options later in the level were based on what resources you found, and which you spent, earlier in the level. Various maps tune this balance differently leading to some maps starving you of resources, while others have few weapons to work with; plenty of maps even place weapons in locations that require you to deal with encounters on the way. Doom 2016, however, had a system in place that showered (heh) you with resources at a moment’s notice, which flew squarely in the face of level exploration as resource management. Combat encounters were decontextualized from one another. You even obtained weapons in a continuous fashion, meaning they were more akin to upgrades rather than resources you locate (or fail to locate) on a map. Eternal pushes this style of resource management further by adding flame belches for armor, which is another layer to manage. As such, the exploration of a level is more for progression and secrets, rather than for resources, and you don’t experience attrition over the course of the level, because infinitely respawning enemies, and infinitely refilling chainsaw/flame belch/glory kill are your source of ammo, armor, and health. Doom Eternal does not deserve to be thought of in the context of Classic Doom, it’s better to think of it as a completely different game series.

Eternal pushes ammo management further with its harsh ammo caps. It can definitely feel oppressive at first, but it punishes sloppy play heavily. You will inevitably run out of ammo all the time in the early missions, establishing the importance of the chainsaw to replenishing your ammo supply. Given the low ammo cap, the chainsaw can be viewed as a conditional reload only available when you’re close to a weak fodder enemy. Because the chainsaw regenerates fuel and fodder enemies respawn constantly, the game is really demanding that you save fodder enemies for ammo and focus instead on the large enemies. As for health and armor management, enemy attacks can deal a lot of damage to you quickly and the enemy aggression borders on absurd. If you’re not careful they can quickly tear you to shreds. Staying maxed out on health and armor on higher difficulties is fairly challenging. All of this combines to form an early gameplay loop where you’re constantly managing resources and preserving “moving resource kits”. This soon evolves into a grand cycle after obtaining a lot of weapons. At this point, you only recharge ammo every once in a while as you have a lot of available ammo distributed across your many weapons. Overall, Eternal addresses an ongoing trend with shooters – absurdly high ammo caps. Older shooters focused on resource attrition, meaning high ammo caps worked fine, because firing a bullet meant one less bullet existed in the world for you to deal damage with. Doom Eternal however has infinitely renewable ammo, much like other modern shooters, so a high ammo cap would mean no threat of ever running out of ammo as you’re continuously showered in it. Doom Eternal’s low ammo caps serve to make the core combat as interesting as possible, by forcing you to not overly rely on any one weapon. You might always be able to get more ammo, but you’ll also always be running out in the moment.

Optimizing your DPS in Doom 2016 required a lot of weapon switching routes as it was faster to shoot multiple weapons once rather than stick to the same weapon. Unfortunately, this was not capitalized on due to 2016’s fairly lackadaisical arena design and enemy combinations. It was far too easy to converge to a “workhorse” weapon that dealt with literally everything the game threw at you. The ammo caps and enemy weakpoint system makes weapon switching mandatory this time around, and I’m fairly glad that is the case. Weapon management is a relatively unexplored area of FPS design, as weapon choice was always based on levels and encounters. You either had a consistent workhorse weapon (like the Super Shotgun) or learned specific usage of specific weapons for specific encounters. But Eternal ties its weapon usage to its enemy design, far more than any other shooter I remember, making weapon management an essential skill. The notion of a main weapon really doesn’t work cleanly with Eternal, and even if it did, different people would converge to different workhorses.

Speaking of enemies, what a work of art! This is the first FPS I’ve played in a long while that nails enemy design so perfectly. I genuinely think Eternal’s enemy roster rivals Devil Daggers’ and Doom 2’s. The roster has an enemy occupying almost every niche available and everything a player can do has a soft counter in the form of an enemy. Some enemies chase you down, some tank damage, others hang back and provide ranged support, some are flying, some act as a wall. Most types of enemies demand or reward certain skills from the player, such as Pinkies, Plasma Shield Soldiers, Archviles and Marauders reward your ability to hit them around and behind their protection. Arachnotrons, Revenants, Makyr Drones, and Mancubuses reward you for sniping off their projectile armaments. Plasma Shield Solders and Mancubi can be used as explosives against their fellow demons, if you group them together. Revenants, Doom Hunters, and Cyberdemons (called Tyrants in this game) can shoot homing missiles, demanding you dash or double jump to break lock-on. Carcasses, Doom Hunters, and Plasma Shield Soldiers can have their shields overloaded with plasma fire.

Enemies also occupy different zones in combat. Many will chase you down and only have melee attacks, such as Hell Knights, Pinkies, Whiplashes. Prowlers will even teleport after you, making them a constant threat. Other enemies are more content to sit back and assist, such as Carcasses, which block your line of sight and movement, making it difficult to move in for glory kills, or pain elementals, which summon lost souls and shoot projectiles. Others insist you get out of their personal space, such as Mancubi with the fast AOE stomp, or Marauders with their fast close range shotgun. Enemies vary in speed, from the slowly advancing Mancubi tanks, to the fast and agile prowlers, or Marauders and Pinkies, who have great horizontal movement, but are terrible at dealing with platforms. Cyber Mancubi can lay acid on the ground, flushing you out of an area.

This is further amplified by the (mostly) really competent enemy AI. They are aggressive and punish simple movement; linear movement and circle strafing can work for some enemies, but others will flank and deal with you accordingly. Even vertical movement has counters this time. I feel like the new version of Doom 2’s roster is readapted to Eternal in the best way possible. For instance, the Archvile has attacks that require dashes to avoid, powerful AoD spells that mimic the original, and absurd summoning potential. It spawns enemies around you (even superheavy ones), while it hides in corners. It can even teleport around for good measure! The Tyrant is a tanky bastard that smothers the arena with rockets, fire, and lasers that lock down whole areas. Good stuff. As for the new additions, they end up targeting the gaps left behind in the roster. We have stuff like the Whiplash which constantly harasses you and inflicts crazy knockback, and the Carcass which places shields around enemy weakpoints. The weakpoints here don’t simply eliminate enemies, instead reducing the enemies’ options against you. Each enemy can deal with you at multiple ranges, and it is up to your skill to decide who to deal with. This creates some of the finest enemy prioritization ever.

On top of that, enemy combinations and arenas are set up in really neat ways throughout the campaign, with some of the later missions demanding more from the player than almost every other shooter I’ve played. Add the Slayer Gates and Master Levels and we have a game whose demands rival those of older action titles (like Ninja Gaiden and God Hand) and challenge maps from FPS modding communities. It’s crazy that id Software themselves have pushed the game so far, but this is 2020 after all. I’m genuinely stoked for future Master Levels, as the current ones have revitalized the flow of their base missions. This demonstrates a remarkable understanding of arena design. Most arenas tend to be asymmetrical and have efficient vantage points for both the player and enemies. Even the more symmetrical ones tend to be constrained, testing vertical movement options more.

As for what the player can do, your toolkit in Eternal is remarkably potent. Of course we have the dash and jump serving as the base for the movement kit, but adding the meat hook on the SSG, the Ballista boost, and air control rune gives us a very robust core for movement. There’s also the inertia and differences in how vertical/horizontal momentum are imparted by these options. As such, this core is capable of dealing with everything the game throws at you (and it throws a lot). Even then, new movement tech has been discovered (we have dash-jumping, bunnyhopping, superjumping, and mid-air circle strafing) further adding more options. The weapons in Eternal ultimately thread a fine line between accommodating workhorses and encouraging diversity. It’s also pretty great that almost every ammo type is shared across two weapons and that choices between the types is non-obvious. Each enemy can be dealt with an “optimal” method, but Eternal offers flexibility as you unlock more weapons, shifting even the weak point system to a non-essential, but still useful, part of your toolkit. Finally the equipment launcher offers some nice support tools, allowing you to flame belch/frag grenade/ice bomb while using another weapon.

All of the above combines to form a frenetic FPS with a lot of complexity and depth. One way to summarize this is by comparing it directly with stylish action games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta. You unlock more and more tools as you play, and the game throws more and more at you to compensate. Eternal also partially resolves a few issues with the action game formula, such as difficulty unlocks and encounter design. You have all the difficulties unlocked at the start and so you can start progression at any difficulty rather than patiently grind out lower ones. And as mentioned before, Eternal nails both enemy design and encounter design, effectively combining the best aspects of stylish action and FPS philosophy.

Now enough adulation. Here’s a list of issues with the game, that either I noticed or were brought to my attention by others:

1. UI and HUD: Important cooldowns and resource counts were huddled away in corners, and for a hectic game that relies so heavily on them it does become annoying to take your eyes away just to be aware of your own resources. One tip I received was observing them during glory kill animations, which does work but is certainly not ideal. There’s also the fact that ammo caps are important in this game, so being aware of all ammo capacities would be very useful. There are only 4 primary ammo types in this game, so something could’ve been bodged into place (the weapon wheel really isn’t ideal for the pace you can play this game at). Maybe placing the resource generators (chainsaw, flame belch, blood punch, ) near the center or the sides of the screen could have worked?

2. Extreme tutorialization: I’m in two minds about this. I’m glad that we get the introductions out of the way so Eternal can throw more interesting stuff at you faster, but I definitely sympathize with the sense of discovering stuff yourself (you can disable tutorials if you really want this back). But the weird situation with Eternal is that it conveys the weakpoints as the only way to deal with enemies, which is definitely not the case. I’ve heard someone refer to Eternal’s issue as “overtutorialization”. Doom Eternal’s tutorial popups give the impression that enemies are supposed to be fought by targeting their weakpoints, giving the false impression that Doom Eternal is about hard counters.

They explain a lot of information on the systems of Doom Eternal, but not much about strategy or theory, and the systems of Doom Eternal are weak points, glory kills, flame breath, chainsaw, and the specific features of certain guns, which can lead people to thinking that only some guns are good against some enemies, instead of thinking more robustly relative to their current situation. Prying off an enemy’s turrets might be helpful for surviving an encounter, but there’s always a faster way to kill an enemy outright, and glory kills are nearly always slower and less efficient. Chainsaw might regenerate and be the most immediate means of restoring your ammo, but arenas are stocked such that you can beat them with just the ammo provided if you’re efficient, even on nightmare difficulty (In the Ultra-Nightmare 100% speedrun, it’s very common to see runners hang onto chainsaw fuel for multiple fights to kill a heavy demon later on, and even at 1 fuel pip, they rarely need to use it, because they’re so efficient with found ammo in arenas).

Doom Eternal also fails to communicate some more subtle systems, such as that most light enemies will respawn indefinitely over the course of a fight, and fights are really about taking down the heavy enemies, which leads people to being wasteful with ammo/health and needing to rely on the chainsaw and glory kill to recharge. Doom Eternal simultaneously explains too much, but fails to teach the right lessons, but it’s difficult to fix, because a lot of the game is easy to miss for players lacking intuition and observation skills.

3. Opening: The opening few levels are sluggish. You really don’t have too many tools at the start of the game, so it does feel rather restricted compared to what follows. This is where I also sympathize with the “forced playstyle” complaints due to the flood of tutorials. This game really does not put its best foot forward. It only really opens up after Mission 3.

4. Platforming: The platforming is weirdly utilized. I don’t have an issue with the idea of platforming in shooters. It’s just that Eternal uses it as the connecting tissue between areas rather than part of the arenas themselves. I would’ve liked to see a few gimmick areas using platforming more; at most you get a monkey bar here and there. There’s a secret encounter that does this, and it’s pretty cute. I wish there were more like it, even as secret encounters. Also the walls for climbing can be difficult to identify against other surfaces and tend to be tucked away in corners, making it less obvious how to progress. There are many invisible walls, blocking apparently accessible areas, which can make hunting for secrets even more confusing.. There’s also the purple goop, which disables your ability to jump and dash, and forces you to walk at a slow crawl. There isn’t really a purpose to this goop, and some sections force you through it.. The goop can sometimes be avoided with good dashing, but it’s a weird addition. There is an arena early on that does use this, but I don’t think it works particularly well due to fewer movement options available. If you fall, you have to sluggishly walk out. Thankfully the goop is rare.

5. Marauders: These guys are poor additions to the roster. Attempting to actively kill a Marauder means focusing on the marauder, near exclusively, and waiting with the right weapon in hand. Marauders block all shots directly at them with their shield, but if you stand at mid-range, they will sometimes flash their eyes green, and charge at you. If hit with a burst fire weapon, like a shotgun or ballista, while they’re charging the Marauder will be stunned briefly, letting you hit them with whatever. This is the only consistent way to deal damage to marauders (admittedly, there are tricks that let you redirect his shield, hitting him from 2 sides at once).

What this means is that fighting Marauders normally means you need to stand mostly still, in his mid-range charge zone, and watch for whether he charges or shoots a projectile, while holding a burst fire weapon, so you can’t really fight marauders unless you commit to killing just the marauder and ignoring the other enemies. Realistically, this makes it so marauders are like a ranged add to whatever fight they appear in until the other enemies are cleared out and you can focus fire them. Of course, a bunch of strategies exist to cheese Marauders, but all of them involve following a strict set of instructions (fire 1 BFG to distract him, fire another directly at him; parry, then switch-cancel between super shotgun and ballista for a quick kill; lock-on rockets, fire a frost grenade behind him to redirect the shield, unload all your rockets on him). Marauders don’t create interesting decisions like the other demons do, because they demand such specific solutions. Rather than fulfilling a unique role in combat, they’re more of a minigame unto themselves.

The obvious solution to fix Marauders is to let their shields get popped, like plasma shield soldiers, but that means they no longer occupy a unique strategic role from plasma shield soldiers. The more subtle answer is to disable the Marauder’s shield at mid to close range, letting them only shield from afar (which also gives better feedback of when you’re at the proper range). This means marauders can be freely engaged, like other enemies, but only up close, so they’re still a ranged add in most situations, you still need to approach them, but you don’t need to play a high-focus minigame with them to deal damage. Of course, this removes the parry thing the team was going for, with managing the ranges. The solution to that is to give the Marauder super armor that can only be broken with a parry (and a little extra defense when they’re not being parried, to help incentivise going for the parry specifically. Maybe 50% extra). So now Marauders have a unique role in combat, but don’t demand you follow a specific solution or focus on them to the exclusion of other enemies.

6. Enemy Silhouettes: Fodder silhouettes are not ideal. This is especially noticeable when you face the Prowler, which kinda looks like a mix between the Imp and Gargoyle, but is actually a heavy. Their slightly larger size and purple color really isn’t enough, but I guess you can get used to it. The different basic zombie types take different amounts of damage, but they look samey. It also seems that setting up glory kills with the Shotgun on them is inconsistent, but you could always use the Heavy Cannon for finer increments of damage.

7. Unlock Systems and RPG Mechanics: They really went hard on this one. The Rune system is forgivable as it tries to encourage diversity of playstyles. Unlocking weapon mods is cool as you get more tools to use, and the weapon masteries are mostly worth the effort, but the upgrades in the middle feel like busywork. The Praetor Suit and Sentinel Crystal systems feel like entirely filler to me. Although by the end of the game you do unlock everything, it would have been nice to have most of these at the start.

8. Weapons and Equipment Launcher: I feel the Ice Bomb and Frag Grenade could have been on different buttons, it’s otherwise fairly clunky to switch between them as they are useful as attack strings. The weapon mods are also not entirely well balanced, but new use cases are being discovered so I could be wrong on this (also this might just stem from my playstyle). I also feel the Chainsaw at two pips is fairly useless; maybe allow for heavy removal with two pips when they are in a glory-kill state? As for the superweapons, the Crucible and BFG are rather boring. The Crucible just removes 1-3 enemies and that’s it. I wish more was possible with it, and I’ve heard some ideas like a ground slam and sword lunge. The Slayer’s Testaments mod for Quake allows it to hit multiple enemies, for instance. The BFG is a decent cleanup option and it does help with quickly eliminating superheavies, but is otherwise less interesting than the other weapons. The Unmakyr is a pretty decent superweapon and it’s probably the closest to interesting as it has a large spread from afar, but is an enemy deleter up close.

9. Ripatorium and Mod Support: The Ripatorium is a neat addition and has some cool hidden encounters (Archvile that summons twin buffed Marauders, good lord), but I wish it could be customized more. Also the lack of mapping features for this game is a real downer, especially because some juicy encounters could be made with that enemy roster and maybe even some neat platforming maps. The Master Levels do compensate for this partially, but I do hope for some mod support in the future. It might even be possible as the devs say they made the tools very easy to use, but creating a modding utility is still absurdly challenging for a AAA title.

10. Miscellaneous: The story is decent, but not as subtle as 2016’s, I guess. It’s good we can skip cutscenes this time though. The bosses are decent and nothing to write home about, which is commendable for an FPS. The ending was fairly weak as well.

That’s mostly it. Some of the above border on nitpick territory, but I feel that’s reflective of how strong a game Eternal is. It’s commendable that the Doom franchise itself is targeting the FPS trends it established. People praised Doom 2016 for buckling the trend that military shooters fell into. I praise Doom Eternal for something more. It’s far more ambitious a game as it breaks decades old habits and trends, while vastly improving a unique formula. We have the indie scene and mapping communities exploring the design space of older shooters, so I’m glad that it’s a AAA title that pushes the boundary this time. The Doom franchise means many things to different people, but one thing it doesn’t have is a hard-set identity. Each Doom game excels at different aspects. Doom 1 is this fusion of horror and action. Doom 2 is a more abstract, gameplay-oriented expansion pack. Doom 64 and Doom 3 opted to explore the horror side more. Doom 2016 serves as a return to form and criticism of the direction FPS took, but wasn’t as uptight about preventing cheese and forcing interesting decisions. Doom Eternal now criticizes the foundation of the genre itself and offers its own style of play based on soft counters, fostering interesting decisions. I for one am excited to see what they do next. It’s now clear that NuDoom and Classic Doom are fundamentally different games, and that’s for the better.

Turns out Doom is Eternal after all. 10/10.

Transitive (Efficiency Race) vs Non-Transitive (Rock Paper Scissors)

So I’ve said that there’s 2 types of multiplayer game fundamentally: Efficiency Race and Rock Paper Scissors. This video (re)introduced me to the mathematical concept of Transitive and Non-Transitive relations. This is an amazing lens for describing the difference between these two fundamental games.

In an Efficiency Race, there is always one option, or set of options that is always better than the others, per some metric of efficiency (time or victory points). This means that options (or combinations thereof) can be ranked against each other in a transitive fashion. If A > B > C, then A > C. Trackmania is the most pure example of this out there, since you cannot interact with the opponent in any way and a given route will always be faster or slower than another route (assuming you follow it exactly).

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This is the payoff matrix for an efficiency race version of rock paper scissors, notice that rock always wins, and scissors always loses, unless they tie

In Rock Paper Scissors (or the Shell Game), the correct option is different depending on your opponent’s option. A > B > C might be true, but C > A, making a loop. In a game like this, there isn’t a clear best answer, the best answer will always be a mix of your options rather than any clear course. In order to make a decision non-transitive, there must be hidden information about what the opponent’s option is (or which options they have available, or chose in the past), such as by going simultaneously, or having a hidden hand of cards, or an army hidden behind the fog of war.

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This is the payoff matrix for normal rock paper scissors, notice how each option wins against 1 option and loses against one option.

There’s another element at work here too, which is brought up in the video, luck or RNG. Luck can also have a transitive or non-transitive relationship with player choices. Luck can have a static effect on game state regardless of choice, thus being transitive (ie. you get the same lucky effect regardless of what your choices are). Or luck can have varying effects depending on your decision, making some decisions more powerful than others. On top of that, there’s input-randomness versus output-randomness, which can both be either transitive or non-transitive. Transitive input or output randomness isn’t very influential on a multiplayer game typically (everyone being uniformly closer/further from winning usually isn’t that big a deal unless someone was about to win/lose). Non-transitive input-randomness changes how much every option rewards the player, which jumbles around what the optimal solution is in an efficiency race game, and jumbles the payoff matrix of a rock paper scissors game. Non-transitive output-randomness is the worst kind of randomness because it essentially screws with your ability to make decisions.

This also makes a statement about single-player games. Ideally, single-player games are fair. Fairness includes a few things, like providing clear information about your choices, and clear feedback about the results of your choices, but it also means not randomly screwing you over. You should always have a choice that will lead to success (unless you checkmate yourself, which should also be clearly communicated). If there’s hidden information that causes you to fail, such as output-randomness, that’s not good.

For this reason, single player games CANNOT have truly non-transitive decisions. A single player game cannot be true rock-paper-scissors like a multiplayer game without becoming unfair. This means that every situation in a fair single-player game always has a knowable optimal solution (per whatever metric you choose). What a game can do however is non-transitive input-randomness, which jumbles what the optimal solution is. The most common form of this in action games is enemies using random attacks at random times and random positions, but the attacks are slow enough that you can react to them. Picking the best way to avoid an attack (and punish it) might be difficult and the random variation means you need to resolve over and over as a fight progresses. If the state space of a given fight is big enough, then hopefully you’ll never encounter the same exact situation twice, keeping you solving fresh problems the whole time (and this also shows that the issue with grinding or enemies with too much HP is that either you intentionally limit the state space to keep things quick, or you exhaust it through enough repetition, which is bad pacing).

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Single player games always have this type of payoff matrix, but eliminating choices to get to the optimal payoff takes time, and if the choices get jumbled, it requires you to recalculate, meaning you’ll choose less optimally every time and need to rely on heuristics. Source

When I say that I want single player games with counters, I mean that I want them to have this type of non-transitive decision-making property that comes from non-transitive input randomness. In aggregate, all the choices you make throughout a single-player game might be perfectly transitive, but games can do a lot to make individual choices along that road more or less transitive, and can leverage input-randomness or deterministic chaos to affect the payoff matrix of those choices, which makes finding the aggregate optimal solution really hard! I usually sum this up as saying choices are situational or not, lead to interesting decisions or not. This is a shortcut to this more fundamental rule.

Fundamentally, fair single-player games are always going to have an optimal solution for every situation, but by varying the payoff of each option in each situation, single-player games can emulate the counters of multiplayer rock-paper-scissors games, without becoming unfair to the player by invoking output-randomness.

By making these counters “soft” instead of “hard” (making the payoff or success rate a continuous range of values that varies depending on the situation, instead of a binary that flips, in other words, avoiding the silver-bullet problem), single player games can have fair interesting choices. This is what brings a game closest to the type of interesting decision-making and strategy that I find in multiplayer games, like Fighting Games, RTS, or FPS. There are a few games that I think have really succeeded at this, the best of which I’d label as: Nioh, Dead Cells, God of War 2018, Doom Eternal, Metal Gear Solid 3 (and V), Thief 2, Cosmic Star Heroine, and Starcraft’s campaign (at least, SC2’s campaign on a difficult that’s right for you, maybe with some modifiers, like in coop).

This counter-based design isn’t specific to any genre, a platformer can achieve this, driving game, stealth game, FPS game, RTS, RPG.

Even without a counter based design, a game can still use this design pattern (non-transitive input-randomness affecting limited choices with a continuous range of payoff values/success rates) to create interesting decisions, such as in the best 2d zelda games and Ittle Dew 2, where hitting enemies knocks them into different positions, and their attacks moves them into varying positions, changing the angle and timing you need to approach for an attack. Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy offers a deterministic version of this, thanks to the high amount of chaos inherent in its physics engine and level design, mimicking the effect of input-randomness, but ultimately allowing players to master the system as they get more precise.

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Golf games have really clear meters for the continuous ranges of values players select between, making them a clear example of the type of interaction going on across many games.

On the side of multiplayer games, I think Efficiency Races and Rock Paper Scissors should be mixed together in any good multiplayer game. Pure RPS makes the game inconsistent and flat. Pure efficiency race means the better player will usually win way too consistently and the game is less about actually interacting with your opponent than your single player skill, so playing a match isn’t much different than playing by yourself. By mixing the two, it allows different players to be good in different areas, which makes the individual player matchups different, because different players will have different payoff matrices versus you, which makes playing each new player an enjoyable experience, it allows different players to have a unique playstyle, both in which options they favor, how often they win with those options, and their payoff for winning with those options.

Having a low threshold for efficiency in an RPS game (every player can do the optimal combos/setups with ease) means every player gets the same payoff for a given option, so the game comes down more to which options players favor rather than the more intricate game of which options the players have mastered and to what degree. There might still be differences in each player’s knowledge of the state space (if the state space is large enough), but it can lead to the game feeling really samey once you hit the skill cap, and further skill improvements become more and more gradual and less rewarding.

I think with this framework, I’ve tapped into something more elementary about interesting decisions than I have in a long time, making what I previously called, “fuzzy evaluations” and “situationality” a lot more clear. Haven’t done this in a long time, I hope I haven’t alienated people too much with the technical jargon. In retrospect, I probably should have called, “efficiency races,” “optimization competitions”, but eh, hindsight’s 20:20 and both are pretty good for getting across the gist of what they mean and I think it would be too much work to go back and change it all now (vote in the comments for your favorite).

You don’t know what Game Feel is, read the damn book please!

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This article is going to be me apologetically shilling for Steve Swink, because Game Feel is Rocket Science Quantum Computing Laser Surgery handed to Cave Men who decided that nomadic pastoralism is a better pursuit than being agriculturalists or hunter gatherers, dooming future civilization forever.

GAME FEEL! It’s the way a game feels to play! It’s incredibly intuitive as a concept, people talk about it CONSTANTLY! Yet, if you look up GDC talks on the topic, or youtube videos, it becomes obvious that no one has read the fucking book, despite it going into WAY more detail than any of those talks do.

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There was a whole talk on “juicy” that prescribes a specific type of game feel by pointing out some specific polish effects that these two dudes like to add to their games by adding them to pong, ignoring that 2 parts of game feel are real-time control and spatial simulation. Jan Willem Nijman of Vlambeer followed this up with another talk that did the same exact thing for a platformer game (calling Game Feel a terrible term in the process as if it were vague or unclear, despite clearly not having read the book, where it’s laid out extremely discretely) and showing off a ton of changes that aren’t actually anything to do with game feel (hp, rate of fire, number of enemies, bigger bullets, etc) and basically spends the whole talk saying, “do what I do and game feel is good now”, rather than building an integrated understanding of all the things that go into game feel, like Steve Swink’s book does.

Even youtube videos made on the specific topic of game feel omit terms from the book and have clearly not read the book. There are 3 components: Real-Time Control, Spatial Simulation, and Polish Effects. None of these videos mention these things, placed at the start of the damn book.

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At this point I’m begging you. PLEASE just read the damn book. It came out over a decade ago now. 2008. There is literally no better resource on the topic since. If you want a demo of what’s in the book, here’s a Gamasutra article by Steve Swink.

Hell, Steve Swink even coded INTERACTIVE DEMOS and put them on his site. Just read the damn book please.

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Why the Hell Does Depth Matter?

Depth is my primary metric of quality for a game. I believe depth is a good metric because it is “simple” and “generic”. Unfortunately it’s not simple in the way of being simple and relatable to understand. It’s simple like GDP is simple. It’s one final number that represents a whole ton of things going on under the hood. Depth is the emergent result of a lot of different things coming together in a game. Depth, like GDP, is a generic metric in that it doesn’t care what’s being invested in, it could be medical, military, education; puzzle game, RTS, RPG, FPS, or fighting game, it only matters what the final outcome is. Depth doesn’t encompass everything about a game, the same way GDP doesn’t encompass everything about an economy, but both are fairly important metrics regardless. Unlike GDP, there are less ways to fake depth and end up with a cheap result.

I define Depth as the number of states that are differentiated from one another, balanced against each other, and currently known about/preferred by the playerbase. State is the current condition something is in at a specific time. A state with regards to games is the current condition of everything present in a game at a moment in time. Depth is the sum of these states after passing through 2 filters: redundancy, and relevancy.

We start with Possibility Space, which is every single state possible. We filter those into Absolute Depth first by removing all states that are redundant, that are just copies of one another, such as rotations or mirror images of the game board in Tic Tac Toe or Go, or more powerful but functionally identical weapons in RPGs. Then we filter Absolute Depth into Relevant Depth by removing all states that are underpowered and therefore not commonly used in play, or the ones that are unknown to the player community at a given time, such as those that use undeveloped techniques or unknown mechanics. The final result is a measure of the effective complexity of the game.

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Okay, so, why the hell would the effective complexity of a game matter? What does it matter if a game is more complicated? For this, lets go back to Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun. The gist of his theory of fun is that fun is derived from winning at something inconsistently, like a coin flip. Fun is also derived from improving your consistency over time. Something you can win at effortlessly is boring, and something you never win at is frustrating (this is backed up by Flow theory too). Random things can trick the brain, which is why gambling can be fun, but most people eventually catch on and stop playing, unless they delve into superstitions about luck.

However there’s also a bit of a contradiction there, if you improve your consistency over time, then won’t something that’s fun now eventually become boring when you’re 100% consistent? That’s true. Depth gives players many different measures of consistency, so while you may be consistent at one thing, now you have something else to get consistent at.

Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun posits that fun is the joy of learning (probably because learning things makes us better at surviving, so we adapted to reward learning neurologically). A deep game has a lot to learn about. Therefore a deep game is a fun game.

On top of that, the experience of playing a deep game is different from playing a shallower one. Deep games typically have more choices, and more possible consequences for those choices, requiring more complex thought about each choice. Many board games with less board states are easily solved (connect 4, checkers), where more complex ones require more arcane heuristics in order to perform well at (Go). Simpler games are more about doing 1 thing right, where deeper games are about thinking about future consequences more. Deeper games involve more interesting decisions, as per the Sid Meier definition.

Smash Bros Melee might have less buttons and less attacks than a traditional fighting game, but you can get more results from each move than you can in a fighting game, because Smash Bros is highly responsive to the relative positions of each character, and the timing with which attacks are hit. This isn’t to say that Smash Bros is necessarily better than a Fighting Game though, because both a few nuanced moves, and many differentiated moves are equally prioritized under depth theory, as long as they shake out to the same number of relevant states.

Later Smash Bros games did a lot of work to remove a lot of the nuance in Smash Bros Melee moves, by making them less responsive to differences in timing and spacing (less sweet/sour spots, reverse hits no longer work), by reducing the effect of defensive mechanics during combos, and removing options outright. These games are comparable in their options, but have less depth. This makes progress less clear, since there are no longer an array of clear techniques and strategies to master, and requires players to work harder to get smaller rewards for their effort.

Are Fan Expectations More Important Than Quality? ft. Durandal

Editors note: This article was co-written by Durandal and I. We each contributed a number of paragraphs and edited back and forth to make the final product.

If you stick around gaming discussions long enough, you might hear the phrase: “it’s a good game, but it’s not a good [franchise/genre] game”. Meaning: while the game might be fun, it does not fit the identity or expectations of a particular franchise or genre. A game not matching expectations is a valid reason to dislike a game, but there’s a tendency amongst fans and reviewers to treat not meeting expectations as an objective flaw with the game’s design. So when there’s a new game which breaks the mold of its genre/franchise, many would criticize the game’s design for not meeting their preconceived notions of how a game in said genre/franchise should play.

This can happen when a game tries to take a classic genre in a new direction, such as Ikaruga. During location tests it got mixed reactions because it didn’t play like any other shmup at the time. Most arcade veterans liked shmups for their straightforward appeal of dodging bullets and blowing everything up. But here the polarity-switching mechanic gives you a shmup that makes you rely much more on strategy and routing over reflexes, making the game more puzzle-like than your average shmup.

Instead of judging Ikaruga in a neutral light from a fresh perspective, many people judged it purely through the lens of what they think a shmup should do. But being a “puzzle shooter” doesn’t make Ikaruga worse or better, just different. Instead of acknowledging that the game is not up their alley, they view the game’s design as objectively flawed. Only how objective can said flaws be to someone with no experience with the genre/franchise?
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Gamedevs Should Not (Exactly) Copy My Criteria to Make a Successful Game

I don’t expect anyone to make a game that perfectly fits my model of what a good game should be and ignores everything else typically involved in making a commercial game, including me.
The reality is, my idea of what a good game is impractical and conflicting with making a popular or best selling game. I judge games and enjoy games for aspects that I would not prioritize during development, and a lot of aspects of making a successful game fall outside the scope of my work. I try to write articles incorporating this broader perspective too, because I’m interested in it, but the core of my philosophy is about making what I would consider a good game, rather than a successful one.
Of course, I still think that someone interested in designing a game should listen to me to some extent (why else would I write?). I still think that I am providing a unique and helpful perspective, but success will always be a medium between my perspective and what’s actually effective to reach and appeal to a wider audience than just me. There are certainly aspects of my writing and philosophy which overlap with general success, but the line is always going to be up to the developer, and it’s never going to be completely clear.

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Play Western Games on the 2nd Hardest Difficulty

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This is a rule I usually abide by for western games. There are exceptions, such as Doom 2016, Doom Eternal, Halo (except 2), Quake 1, STALKER (hardest difficulty reduces the health of all humans), or Starcraft. For the rule to apply, there need to be at least 2 harder difficulties above normal (Normal/Hard/Hardest applies, Easy/Normal/Hard does not), and the hardest difficulty needs to not be unlockable, or playable through some type of NG+. This rule can apply to some Japanese games too (such as Nier, which has some enemies on hard that regenerate health faster than you can deal damage).

For some examples of games where this is true, we have: Old Doom (Nightmare is a joke difficulty, adding respawning enemies into a game about ammo attrition), Call of Duty (Veteran is bullshit), Titanfall 2, Bioshock Infinite (1999 mode, though honestly hard is still a big annoying jump from normal, and 1999 mode isn’t much harder), God of War (hardest difficulty has enemies engage Devil Trigger for insanely high health, and they can’t be launched anymore), Diablo 3 (Inferno, on release), Torchlight 2, Mass Effect 2 (here is a forum post outright mentioning the rule), Gears of War, Batman Arkham Series (turning off counter indicators is fine, but damage is way too high and enemies have way too much health), Uncharted, Spec Ops: The Line, Serious Sam, System Shock 2, Far Cry, FEAR, and Metro 2033. Continue reading

Dead Cells Review

Dead Cells for Nintendo Switch - Nintendo Game Details

Dead Cells bills itself as a Metroidvania Roguelike. It’s a 2d platformer, where you find randomized loot and fight through procedurally generated levels. You have 5 slots on your character for items: 2 weapons, 2 tools, and an accessory. Your basic options are to use your weapons or tools, jump, double jump, roll, chug a potion, ground pound, or generic use button.

Dead Cells’ big influence is from Metroidvanias, and I think the influence is definitely positive on the game, but I don’t think it’s really a metroidvania, and I don’t think making it more like a metroidvania would be good for it. Metroidvania is a design pattern across the entire map of a game’s world, where the map loops on itself, allowing areas from later in the game to fold back on areas from earlier in the game, where objectives are dispersed across this map to encourage unique routing. Despite technically not being a metroidvania, the level structure it chose for itself is still extremely effective in its goals.

Maps in Dead Cells follow a few simple patterns, having an obvious main path with a few detour side paths (Promenade of the Condemned, Ramparts, Stilt Village); branching off into many separate paths with different exits, and teleporters to carry you back (Prison, Toxic Sewers, Ossuary); and having one clear path with few diversions (Ancient Sewer, Slumbering Sanctuary, Forgotten Sepulcher). Metroidvania structure is based on interconnection within the levels, and across the world. Since levels in Dead Cells branch without looping, they can’t have Metroidvania style interconnection. The exception is High Peak Castle, which has 4 maps in one. A main map that has a looping structure, and 3 linear sub-maps that connect different areas of the main map, thereby making even more loops. Tactically, it also has less teleporters than most of the other maps. It’s the second to last level of the game, which I feel is an appropriate ramp up in complexity. Much of the actual level design within maps is looping, even if the maps as a whole don’t loop, which is helpful for weaving around enemies, avoiding their attacks, and picking good positions to attack back from. The sewers in particular have large blocks of the map with a swiss-cheese-like composition, filled with enemies. Again, I’m being a little pedantic about Dead Cells not really being a Metroidvania. The branching maps and dense level design they took from their inspiration make exploring in Dead Cells really fun and it’s definitely a lot stronger for that influence. If they went further and made levels loop more, it would likely have taken away from the focus on quick clear times and speed that they included into the game.

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Dead Cells generates maps for different stages that each have a recognizable character to them that’s distinct between maps, which is really cool! It makes the experience of playing each stage distinct from the others, and gives you a level of regularity in the level/map design that lets you build expectations about how best to tackle each stage, and make informed interesting choices. The teleporters scattered across maps help you double back from dead ends, which is very helpful in the timed levels. Because most levels have a clear directionality to them, you have a general idea of whether you’re getting closer to the ending. Only the clock tower is really misleading, because it’s totally possible to go up a whole tower and it ends up being a dead end. Promenade of the condemned and ramparts both have a linear top path, with branches that go straight down with optional goodies. Clock Tower has paths straight up that occasionally branch into 2. Ancient Sewer and Ossuary are linear with some short diversions. Stilt village has a linear path to the end, but some big buildings with multiple rooms in each, one of which you need to retrieve a key from. Slumbering Sanctuary is Y shaped, having you go on a linear path to unlock all the doors in the level, but also spawning a ton of enemies, then you have the option to teleport back to the beginning of the level and retread your path for extra goodies that get unlocked, or backtrack from where you are. Forgotten Sepulcher is mostly linear with short detours, the darkness gimmick making up most of the challenge of the level. And High Peak Castle is a full looping layout, as described before.

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Dead Cells encourages you to speedrun it, and will naturally give you a movement/attack speed buff for killing 9 enemies in quick succession, letting you refresh it with each enemy you kill. Every stage has a post-stage locked room that can only be unlocked by satisfying a special condition, either completing the stage before the timer from the start of your run has gone too long, managing to kill 30-60 enemies in the previous level without taking a hit, or beating a boss without taking a hit. Speedrunning is the easiest of these conditions to clear and on normal difficulty, speedrunning can give you powerful weapons early, as well as being one of the fastest ways to farm cells. The killstreak bonus helps compensate for players who are more methodical and careful, more invested in exploring the whole level before moving on, but if you get touched, you can lose a long killstreak you were one kill away from completing, without enough enemies left in the level to make it up, which can be painful. In any case, it’s neat to see both of these play styles rewarded.

Dead Cells has a lot of control concessions made to make the game feel more smooth. All attacks let you change their facing direction right up to the moment they become active. Most attacks let you cancel out of them with a roll or jump during the startup or recovery, they even implemented Dodge Offset, so you pick up an interrupted attack string from where you left off, which is helpful because most weapons have strings where attacks grow in damage on the 2nd or 3rd hit (or where the hitboxes are different). The Rapier notably avoids dodge offset, because the first attack is the strongest. It’s frequently wise to get in a few attacks, roll or jump away, then continue where you left off. Rolls also have a TON of invincibility, even long after the point you’d expect it to wear off. These generous cancel windows, combined with punchy animations give Dead Cells a very arcadey feel, without taking away from the feeling of weight and commitment, especially on the heavier weapons.

You’re given some basic movement options to work with in Dead Cells, a double jump, roll, and ground pound (called stomp). Certain gear and runes can give you new movement capabilities, such as a dash, an even faster dash, wallclimbing/jumping, or more double jumps. The character also has automatic vaulting animations for climbing up small obstacles, up ledges, or onto platforms. These have an extremely generous snap-to area, to the point that it can be kind of annoying trying to fall down narrow pits. This vaulting system can make traversing the level feel very fluid and simple, as you platform normally, but try to aim at snap-to points for traversal. Rolling will pass straight through enemies, even letting you pass through them for a little bit after it ends.

It’s becoming a rather basic and ubiquitous thing, but Dead Cells copies the Dark Souls style of healing, requiring you to hold down a button and go through an interruptable animation to heal yourself from a limited reservoir that heals a set percentage with each use, and is only refilled at the end of stages (though you can also heal through random drops, or buying food from merchants; and higher difficulties reduce and eventually remove your sources of healing). There’s also a mechanic called Sudden Death Prevention, which insulates you from death. Any hit that would kill while your health is over 25%, instead reduces you to 1HP. This can help preserve the fairness and integrity of encounters by avoiding 1 shots, but is also loose enough that it won’t get triggered from you getting whittled down by multiple weaker attacks.

Even early enemies have a fair amount of variety that can make your approach to them fairly different. Some enemies are strong on their own, most others require synergy from others to cover for their weaknesses. All enemies mix well together and tend to have differently shaped zones that they attack, and some can only be attacked from some angles. This means you need to think about which evasion option you’ll use, and whether you’ll end up in an unthreatened space. Since enemies cover different zones with their attacks, their attacks can overlap each other, creating unique situations based on their positioning and the environment. If you can catch an enemy alone, you can almost always overwhelm it before it gets a chance to hit back, unless it’s an elite enemy.

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Zombies cover a big horizontal sweep when they lunge. Shieldbearers do the same, except not as big, and if you attack them from the front, your attack will bounce off, so you need to roll to stay behind them, or find a way to stun them from the front. Grenadiers and its evolutions leave an explosion on top of you, which requires you to keep moving to avoid damage. Bats and Kamikaze bats both die in a single hit, but one is dangerous because it gets directly on top of you, the other because it hangs around out of range until it lunges across your space, both can be very annoying to deal with if you only have slow or short range weapons. Sweepers and other enemies have shockwave attacks that travel through the ground, and cannot be dodged through. Disgusting worms are slow and have a small attack range, but take a lot of hits to kill and launch 5 explosives when they die, so they can sponge up your damage, and if you’re in a tight space, it might be hard to avoid the fallout. Scorpions and Knife throwers can appear suddenly and quickly shoot ranged projectiles while you’re occupied with other enemies, but they can also have their ranged attacks interrupted easily. Thornys will hurt you if you backstab them, and their rollout attack leaves their backside facing you if you get hit. Impalers can create spikes under you, requiring you to move to another spot quickly or take damage. Protectors need to be prioritized because they’ll protect all nearby enemies until eliminated. Shockers need to be focused on quickly or avoided as they hit a massive circular AOE around them.

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Elite enemies can be very interesting. They have more health to prevent you from just obliterating them on the spot, and a number of special abilities, usually lasers that themselves attack a unique spatial zone, such as one that rotates around the enemy like a clock, a horizontal one that raises up across the screen, one that surrounds the elite in a large rectangular box to hurt you if you try to run away, a spherical one that surrounds the area directly next to the elite, a horizontal one that hits on both sides of the elite and needs to be jumped away from, a gem on both sides that need to both be destroyed in order to hurt the elite directly, and a gem that hovers above the elite and rains shots down on you as you try to fight it. Elites can also teleport after you once they’re below 50% health, so if you commit to fighting an elite, you better get ready to kill it or be killed.

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A lot of character progression across a given run is facilitated through levelup scrolls, of which there are about 2-4 in each level. These let you pick a stat to level up between brutality (damage focused weapons), Tactics (long range weapons), and Survival (Mostly boosts health, only the primary stat of shields and defensive powers). All of these multiply health and damage and boost the stats of mutations you have applied. You can pick a mutation after each stage, giving you a buff, I found mutations to be a bit underwhelming and they don’t get buffed much by levelups either. That said, they can help make character builds a bit more unique and I did find myself optimizing my character to overcome specific encounters, based on the weapon loadout I had available. Most of the mutations are insignificant in comparison to weapon upgrades or leveling up.

The other form of character progression in a run is through assembling a loadout with randomly dropped Gear. Gear is divided between melee weapons, ranged weapons, shields, traps & turrets, grenades, and powers. You have 4 equip slots, the first 2 holding weapons and shields from the first 3 categories, the second 2 holding utility gear from the latter 3 categories. Many locations in the game drop gear, from treasure chests to shops, to rooms where you can choose 1 item between 2 or 3 selections, all of the same value. Helpfully, the in-game timer is paused during in these rooms to help you make decisions (though you can turn this setting off).

Most weapons have a condition that triggers critical hits, such as striking repeatedly, hitting the enemy from a particular side (assuming the enemy has sides), pushing the enemy against a wall, being at close range or far, attacking after a roll, hitting multiple enemies, or multiple in quick succession, letting you charge it for a crit, or critting when the enemy has a certain status condition. Others might not crit, but still have useful properties, like inflicting a status condition, bypassing shields, knocking enemies back, lassoing you to the enemy, freezing enemies, or hitting across a unique zone. Together these can really affect what angle you try to attack enemies from in terms of distance, high or low, front or behind, how many you target at once, etc. Because multiple enemies can be overwhelming, crowd control is a big deal, and which weapons you have available affects your ability to manage a crowd.

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Weapons also have randomized loot effects that helps distinguish them from one another, and make your loadout more unique across playthroughs. Sometimes I’ve gotten abilities that synergize very well for massive combos, and debated giving them up for weapons with lower base damage than the combo, but a higher crit damage under more dangerous circumstances. Most special effects either inflict statuses or deal bonus damage to enemies currently affected by status conditions, so trying to line those up between your weapons adds a small layer of adaptation to your runs and can sometimes shift you away from your preferred weapons to pick up a high damage combo based on random drops happening to line up with each other. The overall table of effects is massive and many are tailored to specific weapon categories. Figuring out how to synergize weapon effects on the fly can be very fun during runs. Also seeing when you are about to have a special effect combo with another, and rerolling or watching out for the right effect to complete the combo. It adds a layer of meta strategy to how you approach a run, and it has a big effect on your damage output. I normally don’t use throwing knives, but getting a weapon that deals extra damage on bleeding enemies can make it worthwhile.

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Skills are gear that occupies the second two inventory slots, divided between Traps and Turrets, Grenades, and Powers. Skills work on cooldowns that take a while to refill, which can cost you time if you really want to use skills on multiple enemies in a row. Traps and turrets deal damage over time, sometimes inflicting status effects for even more DPS. The effect of these can depend on how mobile the enemy is, or the terrain. They tend to inflict more damage overall than grenades, but it takes longer for that damage to play out, which can be better or worse depending on whether a grenade would have oneshot the enemy or if you’re in for the long haul. Traps and turrets also effect different areas, such as a certain patch of ground, or anything onscreen along a horizontal line, or holding the enemy in place. Grenades vary between damage and status effects, some of which stun or hold enemies in place briefly, but in my experience the stun effects aren’t very helpful in comparison to that of the wolf trap or freezing weapons. Powers have a lot of varied effects that I’m not gonna bother listing here.

Dead Cells is an extremely fair game. All enemies have telegraphed attacks with a clear way to avoid them and even your most basic combat options are enough to beat any enemy. It’s always possible to get into any enemy’s face and smack them, then move out of the way when they’re going to attack. I feel like the hand of the king was more overwhelming than most, but I only fought him like 3-4 times total, so I can’t really judge. You have free reign of when to engage enemies, so if you end up in an inescapable situation, it’s your fault. The times when I died, I immediately said to myself, “Darn, should have done this.” I feel like across the many weapons you encounter on a given playthrough and all the mulligans you’re given, it’s nearly impossible to assemble a completely ineffectual loadout as long as you’re deliberately trying to succeed. Getting extremely effective layouts is more rare, but I’m not a speed runner (and they rely on static drops or custom game modes to reduce drop randomness), so it doesn’t really matter to me.

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Following in the roguelite design trend, there are permanent upgrades you can unlock with currency (cells) you earn in runs. Most of these are new gear that gets added everywhere across the game. You can upgrade the number of healing potions you have, you can add a random weapon or shield at the start, gain the ability to sell any piece of gear at a fraction of the cost, retain gold from the previous run (up to a maximum), and add new options to shops. There are also Runes that can be obtained by fighting elite enemies that spawn in particular parts of particular levels, instantly giving you permanent upgrades, mostly in the form of new traversal options, granting access to levels that are normally gated behind vines, teleportation sarcophagi, breakable floors, or tall towers that must be walljumped up. You collect blueprints from enemies that enable you to unlock new gear and mutations as you play. Some blueprints are in static positions, but most are rare enemy drops. The Hunter grenade is an item that lets you get a blueprint guaranteed from an enemy by turning it into an elite enemy, and weakening it, much like a pokemon battle, making the process of getting blueprints out of specific enemies less tedious. The legendary forge always appears after completing the first boss stage, allowing you to increase the drop rate of higher level gear you discover across runs, even up to 100% and across 3 tiers of upgrade. You are by no means required to get these upgrades to complete the game, and the game is specifically designed to be completable regardless of whether or not you have unlocked a variety of weapons and other upgrades.

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You gain a new boss stem cell every time you complete a run on a new difficulty level. Later difficulty levels have different combinations of enemies, with new effects and more health/damage, and less healing readily available, but temper it with allowing you to upgrade weapons further, and gain more levelup scrolls during levels so you can ascend to a higher level of power. There are many doors leading to bonus rooms that can only be opened when you’re on a certain minimum difficulty, with more becoming available as you go. I’ve only made it to very hard mode, but looking at the list of changes between difficulties, the higher difficulties look extremely scary, demanding a level of perfection, while also bombarding you with enemies that track you tightly with teleportation.

Dead Cells actually has a number of hidden or subtle mechanics, such as Rally, taken from Bloodborne, where you can recover immediately lost health by attacking enemies. Breach is Dead Cells’ version of Poise from Dark Souls. Enemies and weapons take/inflict different amounts of breach damage, depending on the enemy’s state, and too much breach damage will inflict the stunned status on enemies, preventing them from acting for a second. This can be useful for crowd control. There is a speed buff granted for killing 9 enemies in quick succession, letting you refresh it with each enemy you kill. Curses will kill you instantly if you take damage, unless you can kill 10+ enemies first. Liquids on the floor can be frozen or electrified, and prevent enemies from burning. Breaking through doors will instantly stun enemies, and some weapons even take advantage of this. These touches can be really significant in your moment to moment strategy, even if they’re subtle.

Dead Cells is extremely successful at its core competencies. It has a genuinely varied set of enemies and weapons that interact uniquely and synergize amongst each other. It has level design that frequently changes how you approach encounters. The only thing I’d say holds it back is that each weapon can only perform 1 attack, and while there are certainly synergies between the elemental types and critical hits of different weapons, only having 2 weapons and 2 cooldown powers is kind of limiting. There could be more movement and defensive options and there could be more types of obstacles in the levels than just spikes, chainballs, and acid/poison pools. Even so, it asks you to carefully consider your position, movement, and choice of option in a way that is different per encounter, and which naturally shifts over the course of most encounters. You can approach a lot of early encounters as rushing down whichever of the 2 enemies is more vulnerable, then locking down the lone enemy that remains, but this gets harder on higher difficulties and later stages as you have more to worry about, and enemies get more competent individually. Dead Cells has a large number of combat abilities that by themselves would be very deep in an NES era game, and lets you pair them up and play off the environment with them. When encounters have 3-4 enemies, or 2 complex late-game enemies is when I feel like the game really starts to shine, as you can’t perform a quick rushdown and unload all your ammo and abilities to get an enemy out of the way quickly, or focus fire an enemy without worrying about another interrupting you.

I’m really conflicted on the score to give this game. My anti-hype gut says 8, my personal like and enjoyment of the game says 9, and a lot of my mechanical reasoning wavers between 8 and 9. I think I’ve given some games on its level a 10, so it’s a really tough call. I think I have to go with a 9.

A Critique of Doom Eternal’s Story

Doom Eternal - Doomguy Confronts Khan Maykr Scene - YouTube
There have been some complaints about the story of Doom Eternal in comparison to Doom 2016, and I’ve gotta say, I agree. Doom Eternal’s story is disappointing, largely because it doesn’t build on the premise of 2016 and introduces a bunch of characters that we don’t get any time to become attached to as villains. That said, this has absolutely no bearing on Doom Eternal’s quality as a game. It’s a vastly better game than its predecessor, and is one of the best FPS games ever released, very possibly the most tightly tuned FPS game ever released, in a way reminiscent of fighting games, in a way stylish action games should be envious of.

I know I have a bit of a reputation for being “fuck story”, but it’s not that I don’t enjoy stories or enjoy analysis of them. I’m willing to put up with an actively bad and obtrusive story in the name of a good game and likewise I can appreciate good stories from bad games (Legacy of Kain Soul Reaver is my go-to example for this). I don’t want to build a platform where I’m expected to have a nonsense hardline position where it doesn’t make sense.

Some people have been complaining about the story of Doom Eternal, and I think their complaints have merits. Anyone saying the lame story makes the game bad can shove it.

I enjoyed Doom 2016’s dismissal of story elements by the main character. I thought the core concept of 2016 was good, corporation leverages hell to power energy crisis earth, devolving into intracompany demon cults going rogue and fucking everything up. Hayden is like, “but energy tho” and Doomguy does not give a single fuck. We have a neat sequel hook of Hayden betraying us at the end, and Eternal just does absolutely nothing with that. Continue reading